Tens of thousands of protesters have gathered in central Moscow to demonstrate against alleged voting fraud and Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin, in the largest public show of discontent since the end of the Soviet Union.
The protests come three months before Mr Putin, who was president in 2000-2008, seeks a third term in office. The public anger challenges his image as a man who won the affection of most Russians.
That image was undercut by last Sunday’s parliamentary elections, during which Mr Putin’s United Party narrowly retained a majority of seats, but lost the unassailable two-thirds majority it held in the previous parliament.
But the opposition claims even that reduced performance was inflated by massive vote fraud, citing reports by local and international monitors of widespread violations.
The reports of vote-rigging and the party’s loss of seats acted as a catalyst for long-simmering discontent of many Russians.
“The falsifications that authorities are doing today have turned the country into a big theatre, with clowns like in a circus,” said Alexander Trofimov, one of the early arrivals for the protest at Bolotnaya Square, on an island in the Moscow River near the Kremlin.
“I don’t think any citizen of the country can say he is very happy with anything. We don’t have an independent judiciary, there is no freedom of expression – all this combined creates a situation where people are forced to protest,” said demonstrator Albert Yusupov, who was dressed in civilian clothes but identified himself as a member of the Russian army.
By the time the rally started, the square and nearby streets were packed shoulder-to-shoulder with protesters braving intermittent snow. Police said there were at least 25,000, while protest organisers claimed 40,000.
City authorities gave permission for a rally of up to 30,000 people, which was unusually liberal towards an opposition that generally is either denied permission to rally or limited to small numbers.
It was not clear if police would choose to crack down if the crowd clearly exceeded 30,000. But they did try to move demonstrators off a footbridge leading to the island, claiming it was so packed with people that it could collapse.
Protests also took place in at least 15 other cities across the vast country.
In Vladivostok, several hundred protesters rallied along a waterside avenue where some of Russia’s Pacific Fleet warships are docked.
Officials in many cities, including Moscow, gave permission for the protests. But in what appeared to be an attempt to prevent young people from attending, Moscow’s school system declared this afternoon a mandatory extra school day. Students were told of the decision only yesterday, news reports said.
Hundreds of people were arrested in smaller protests earlier in the week. Some, including prominent opposition blogger Alexei Navalny, were sentenced to 15 days in jail.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev conceded this week that election law may have been violated, and Mr Putin suggested “dialogue with the opposition-minded” - breaking from his usual authoritarian image.
The Kremlin has come under strong international pressure, with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calling the vote unfair and urging an investigation into fraud. Mr Putin in turn criticised Ms Clinton and the US for allegedly instigating protests and trying to undermine Russia.